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September 21, 2015

Between 1983 and 1990, you couldn’t go to a roller rink, Sweet 16 or nightclub without hearing the addictive strains of freestyle. Sometimes called Latin hip hop or Heartthrob, its Roland bass, effervescent minor-key synth melodies, and Latin-influenced percussion infected urban teenagers from New York to Miami to Chicago to L.A. Its lyrics were the perfect soundtrack to tormented high school romances while the sounds of whips, laser beams, machine-gun stutters and pitch-shifted vocals explored the limits of the new electronic beat machines. Freestyle songs said one thing: regardless of how heartbroken or lovesick you might be, you better get out on the dancefloor.

The backbone of freestyle was the work of electro godfather Arthur Baker and John Robie on hits like Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (and its sister “Play At Your Own Risk” by Planet Patrol), Freeez’s “I.O.U.,” and C-Bank’s “One More Shot.” Many of freestyle’s greatest producers and DJs would work in Baker’s hit factory editing or mixing, including Shep Pettibone, Aldo Marin, Louie Vega, Carlos Berrios and the Latin Rascals (Albert Cabrera and Tony Moran). Some of these DJs would also helm popular mix shows on New York City radio stations WKTU, Kiss-FM and Hot 103, bringing the sounds from the clubs to the tape decks and block parties of the five boroughs.

Following the July 1983 release of Shannon’s dramatic “Let the Music Play” in NYC and several hits from Miami’s “Pretty Tony” Butler – including Debbie Deb’s “When I Hear Music” and Freestyle’s “Freestyle Express” – the stage was set for a furiously fertile period where freestyle hits were being made, club-tested and released on independent labels in a matter of weeks. But freestyle really began to pull away from its breakdance roots and crystallize into its own genre with the addition of teen frontwomen like Nayobe, Lisa Lisa and Trinere – themselves plucked from high schools and behind the counters at clothing stores and catapulted into underground fame. Written, produced and vocalled largely by second-generation Latinos, freestyle captured the imagination of young clubgoers who could finally see and hear themselves reflected in the music.

By the dawn of the ’90s, thousands of freestyle songs had been cranked out and the formula was wearing thin, replaced by the harder-edged crackle ‘n’ pop of ’90s dance, new jack swing, and uptempo hip hop by the likes of Naughty by Nature and TLC. The genre would become a joke in the industry, even as millions of fans from the Bronx to Brazil kept the torch aflame. Ultimately, a series of reunion concerts and arena shows starting in the early 2000s resuscitated the careers of Cover Girls, Judy Torres, Exposé and Debbie Deb, among others.

Freestyle is the story of teen dreams – a time when young producers, vocalists, DJs, and label owners conspired to remake pop in their own image. Against the backdrop of a battered (but permissive) New York City and the glamorous warzone of Miami Vice-era Florida, a rag-tag group of heartthrobs proved that all that glittered could be (pop) gold, creating songs that continue to inspire the likes of M.I.A., Janet Jackson, Morgan Geist and Blood Orange, among many others. In this oral history, Vivian Host cruises with some of the men and women behind those perfect beats.

Arthur Baker
Legendary hitmaker and godfather of electro-hip hop

Arthur Baker

Freestyle was literally music for New York. It was music being made for [clubs like] The Funhouse or Heartthrob.

George Lamond

Kraftwerk “Numbers,” Afrika Bambaataa “Planet Rock,” Planet Patrol’s “Play At Your Own Risk” and Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” is basically the foundation of what freestyle is, the format and the tempo.

Jellybean Benitez
Resident DJ of Manhattan nightclub The Funhouse and a producer/remixer who worked on early hits by Madonna

Jellybean Benitez

People didn’t even know what to call the music at first – you know, electronic stuff with the robot voices. It was new. It was different. I was playing Talking Heads and Yazoo and Tom Tom Club and all these imports. I was reading NME and Melody Maker about all the stuff that was coming from England. There were certain times when a record was just an instant hit, like “I.O.U.” or New Order’s “Confusion.” At the same time, I had a mix show on WKTU on Saturday nights so I got to play a lot of the stuff, and that also helped to introduce the audience to it.

Aldo Marin
WKTU DJ, edit king and co-owner of Cutting Records

Aldo Marin

To me, “One More Shot” by C-Bank was the first freestyle song. I believe it was from November of ‘82; I played it in one of my DJ mixes on WKTU. But then the one that really broke freestyle was “Let the Music Play” by Shannon and after that it was Cover Girls “Show Me,” Sa-Fire “Don’t Break My Heart” and then Florida started doing it and all that.

Shannon

The song dropped in July of ‘83. At the time there was no freestyle. Dance music wasn’t even taken seriously. Lisa Lisa and Planet Patrol weren’t out yet, but Afrika Bambaataa was. “Let the Music Play” is influenced by all of those flavors, but it’s more Latin, Cuban, African. By ‘84/’85, “Let the Music Play” was huge and topping the worldwide charts. Billboard was calling it the “Shannon sound.” It went on to sell more than ten million worldwide.

Chris Barbosa
Bronx-born DJ who produced hits for Shannon, George Lamond, Nolan Thomas, and others

Chris Barbosa

I think my sound came from just growing up Puerto Rican banging sticks to Latin salsa music, plus always listening to pop growing up in the ‘70s. I was at home sick for a while and I started messing around with gear and that’s how “Fire and Ice” – which is what the demo of “Let The Music Play” was called – came about. The “fire” is the street bass and the beat and the “ice” is the pop melody that sits on top. A friend of Mark’s named Quentin Hicks then said he knew a girl who might sound good on it. Brenda “Shannon” Green was the first audition and she married the track perfectly.

For the full story behind the making of “Let The Music Play,” click here.

Shannon

One of my first gigs was with Kiss-FM at The Funhouse. Jellybean was the DJ; I opened up and Madonna closed. I remember Kiss program director Barry Mayo said, “Wow, she is something else.” It was like everybody was rooting for me. The second show was at this skating rink in the Bronx where I got paid in really small bills. That was for Sal Abbatiello.

Sal Abbatiello
Bronx-based promoter, club owner and label head who had a huge hand in popularizing early hip hop and freestyle

Sal Abbatiello

I owned this nightclub The Fever, which was for young black kids from urban areas in the Bronx and Queens. The Fever was getting ready to get closed up for no cabaret license and I didn’t know what to do with my future. Hip hop had blown up and The Fever got all old and played out. I’m sitting in this park and I start watching these Puerto Rican kids breakdancing. I thought, “Oh shit! Latin hip hop!” There was no freestyle music or anything yet, but I was going by the culture and the movement. My father happened to have a Latin club that I was helping him promote, which was in the Bronx not too far from The Fever. I called him and said, “Yo, I found a new movement: Latin hip hop.” My dad said, “Forget about hip hop. I don’t want to deal with hip hop no more.”

At the same time, this is 1984, I had this young lady, a Cuban named Nayobe. She was 15 but she wound up winning my Gong Show at The Fever; the prize was a recording contract with Fever Records. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with her. At the same time, there was this young Puerto Rican named Andy Tripoli, aka Andy Panda, who worked in a record store in the city called Downtown Records with Tony Moran of Latin Rascals. They were two young aspiring DJs.

Tony Moran
Half of the Latin Rascals, popular radio DJs, edit kings, and the producers behind hit records for TKA, Sa-Fire and Cover Girls

Tony Moran

Downtown Records, Vinyl Mania and Rock & Soul were the record stores that sold to the A-list of DJs of that era, the guys who played in Bonds or Paradise Garage or The Saint. I started working at Downtown in exchange for records and that’s how I met Carlos De Jesus, program director of WKTU.

Carlos heard one of the tapes I made with Albert Cabrera, put it on reel-to-reel and within our first play on the radio, they wound up getting so many requests for it, they played it like 45 times in a row. They dubbed us the Latin Rascals.

Sal Abbatiello

Andy Panda, who was about 18, had made a four-track demo in his house of this song called “Please Don’t Go.” He wanted to meet me, and he heard The Fever crew was going to be at this block party in the city. He sees Nayobe sing and I don’t know how, but he gets his way backstage to tell me that he’s got this song that’s going to fit her.

Andy “Panda” Tripoli
Producer behind Nayobe, Cover Girls, TKA and the one-time manager of The Devil’s Nest

Andy Panda

Sal and his guys were doing a jam up on 116th and Pleasant Avenue with Kiss-FM and Nayobe was singing; she was doing cover versions, like singing Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy.” I saw Sal and he said he was looking for material for her. His label, Fever Records, had put out some hits like Sweet G’s “Games People Play” and Lovebug Starski “You Gotta Believe.” Sal said, "Come meet me at my club, The Fever, in the Bronx and we’ll listen to the demo." We were sitting in the office; it was Sal, me, Nayobe, and then off to the side are these two guys: one was the head bouncer, this guy named Mandingo, and Norman, who was the manager of The Fever.

All of a sudden this dude bursts in the office and was like, “Yo Sal, we gotta talk now! Right now!” Me and Nayobe go into the hall. I’m oblivious to what’s going on. All of a sudden I hear "Pop! Pop!” Nayobe looks at me and goes, “Oh shit, he just shot ‘em!” We walk in the door and Mandingo is holding his leg going, “I can’t believe he shot me! I can’t believe that motherfucker shot me!” Sal turns to me and is like, “I apologize but I gotta take this guy to the hospital. But if you want I could listen to the demo in the car.” So that’s how he heard the demo, in the car on the way to the hospital.

Sal Abbatiello

At this point, disco had just died. A lot of the hip hop groups were starting to get a few Latins in ‘em: Fearless Four had Tito, Charlie Chase was in Cold Crush Brothers. They’re all over the beat. Now Gloria Estefan comes out with a song called “Conga.” When I heard Conga, I’m like, “Wow! A salsa group just made a record in English with a Latin flavor.” I could see the writing on the wall. This time I’m going to make the record, I’m going to get it in the clubs, everything.

I grab Andy and Nayobe and I go to Sutra, who I had just signed a deal with to distribute Fever Records. I told them I wanted my first record to be “Please Don’t Go.” Now they’re looking at me like I’m crazy, like "These kids have never been in a studio!” But I knew in my heart that that record was a hit.

Andy Panda

I went into the office with Art Kass, he was a record guy from back in the ’60s, he did Gladys Knight, The Five Stairsteps. He was like “This is a good record but we have to find a producer.” I said, “No! I gotta produce it or you can’t sign it.” To this day, I don’t know where I got the balls to say that. He said, “Alright, but I’d be much more comfortable if you found someone that has some experience to produce it with you."

So I went to go look for Arthur Baker because he was my idol. I was 19, I was naïve. I went to the studio where Arthur recorded; I knew where it was because I looked at the writing on the Streetwise records. I marched in and demanded to meet with Arthur Baker. I was like, “I have a record deal and I want him to co-produce my song.”

The receptionist was looking at me like I was crazy because at this point he was the hottest producer in town. But there was an engineer standing nearby who happened to hear the conversation, Chuck Ange, and he walked over to me and said, “I’ll produce the track with you.” He was this nerdy white guy with a beard. Long story short, we produced it together and he taught me a lot about recording. Not only was he a really good engineer, but he knew all the best studio musicians.

Sal Abbatiello

As Nayobe’s record is blowing up, there was another young girl, a Puerto Rican girl from Hell’s Kitchen, named Lisa Lisa. She was a Latin artist but her record, “I Wonder If I Take You Home,” had a slight R&B touch to it because it was produced by Full Force. The movement was starting.

Kayel

Shannon was the mother of freestyle, but Lisa Lisa is like the big sister. When you heard “Can You Feel the Beat” and it had those hard, loud drum loops that we loved from Simple Minds records, that defined it. Lisa was the curve that changed the rhythms from the same “Planet Rock” beat progression to a more sample-based beat progression.

Lisa Lisa

Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen was an adventure for me because it was in the midst of all the Westies (the Irish Mafia) and the Italian Mafia coming in and trying to overtake them. A lot of my friends that I grew up with, their fathers were involved in that. I’m the youngest of ten and we had a single mother, so we all had to take care of each other. As I grew, the neighborhood started to get very touristy – they started putting in a lot of little nightclubs and bar/restaurants with live bands. So at the age of 12 or 13, I was sneaking out of the house, going to these little bars and dressing up in the bathroom and asking them if I could sing.

I was invited to go and meet up with Full Force, [my producers], through a friend of mine, Mike Hughes, who was a roadie for them. We used to hang out at The Funhouse all the time. I was told that The Funhouse was where Madonna got discovered and I wanted to be discovered too. Mike said, “You need to come to this audition.” I skipped school to go and I didn’t get to audition until close to midnight. Girl, I was scared shitless! I’m from Manhattan, and now I was in Brooklyn, in the basement of a house where they had everything set up. I was the last girl to audition so I was by myself. The guys from Full Force walked in – there’s six of them and they were huge – and I thought to myself, “I’m gonna get gang raped,” but they were very nice. I sang a couple of songs for them and they recorded me on cassette. That following Tuesday I was in the studio with them recording “I Wonder If I Take You Home.”

Our song was released on a compilation overseas called Breakdancing but it took about nine or ten months for the song to be re-released by Columbia in the States. I was still in high school and working my part-time job. I was behind the register folding clothes at Benetton when my girlfriend called me on the phone and goes, “Girl, you need to put the radio on.” They were playing my song. I was so excited I broke the phone because I threw it across the room!

Oscar G
Half of famed Miami house duo Murk

Oscar G

For me, what introduced the whole freestyle thing was DJs mixing classic b-boy-type and disco dance records in with those new freestyle records. That was an important connection for the breakdancers because it was easy for us to listen to Freestyle’s “The Party Has Just Begun” and then “Planet Rock” and then they drop a TKA record and we’re still going crazy.

Lisa Lisa

Freestyle got that name, I believe, because it was the music that the freestyle dancers moved to in the clubs or when they were on the street breaking with the linoleum.

Kayel

Freestyle wasn’t necessarily the type of song that you’re dancing to, it was the type of dance that you did to the track. "Oh, I’m freestyling."

Andy Panda

The term “freestyle” was born in the Devil’s Nest. There were these guys and girls that used to come – they had cut their teeth at David Mancuso’s The Loft, they were Loft dancers. We used to say, “Oh they’re sweeping the floor;” they would dive around and do these really dramatic, almost ballet-style moves. But when freestyle music would come on they would change the way they danced. They would say “This is not Loft music, so we’re not lofting anymore. We’re just freestyling.”

Trinere

I’ve heard so many different stories about where freestyle, the name, came from. I believe it came from Pretty Tony, after he named his group Freestyle.

Planet Patrol - Play At Your Own Risk

Arthur Baker

Freestyle was definitely guys from New York making music for New York. And then it got picked up in Miami because a lot of people there had family in New York, cousins or whatever. For years I’d come to Miami, turn on the radio and I’d hear “Play at Your Own Risk,” “Cheap Thrills” or “Perfect Beat” literally within 15 minutes. So Miami was really in a time warp, and they were really into that electro beat with the live element.

Aldo Marin

The New York sound was definitely bigger drums, harder, stronger, more street-oriented. The Miami sound was a little faster and the percussion was a lot more dominant in the mixes. I used to love Debbie Deb, Trinere, Exposé and all that Lewis Martineé stuff.

Andy Panda

Stuff from Miami was a little poppier, a little brighter. When I think of Florida stuff I think of Company B “Fascinated” and all the Exposé stuff, like the way they used the horns on “Point of No Return.” New York was a little more edgy and Miami was more tropical and carnival-like.

Pretty Tony

When I was in high school in Miami I was DJing different high school parties. The major labels had record pools – they’d give the DJs 20 records and then you give them your feedback. What they noticed is every one I told them was going to be a hit, was a hit. Then they asked me, “Do you think you could make a record that was a hit?” So I went from DJing to producing. I built a studio, found the artists, wrote the songs, engineered the sessions, recorded them, and set up the label, as far as distribution, accounts receivables, payables, promotion, and all that.

At the same time, I was promoting concerts: Luther Vandross, Gap Band, Midnight Star. One day, I went to Peaches Records to give them more tickets. I was working on the music for “When I Hear Music.” There’s a voice I heard coming from behind a wall and it was the exact voice I had been hearing in my head. That was Debbie Deb. I go, “Do you sing?” She goes, “No, dude.” I go, “Do you want to make a record?” She said, “I guess.” I gave her my number and my address and asked her to come to the studio that night.

Debbie Deb

Tony played me the music to “When I Hear Music” and said “Do what you want to do, and we’ll record it.” Two days later I went back to the studio, we recorded it and it just fit hand in glove. I wasn’t looking to be a singer. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I started and finished beauty school while my song was being played every three hours on the radio. People in Miami were freaking out because I was the hairdresser that works at Hair Sensations in Aventura.

Trinere

I pretty much fell into meeting Pretty Tony. I was a Rick James groupie and I dropped out of university and went to Buffalo, New York to try to pursue a career as one of his Mary Jane Girls. I saw that it wasn’t going to go anywhere and I wasn’t cut out to be in a group so I went back to Miami. A couple days later, one of my neighborhood friends introduced me to Sherman Nealy. His best friend was Tony, and they had this record company together; Sherman just funded the record company and Tony was the producer.

Trinere - I Know You Love Me

When I first met Tony I didn’t like him. I think he thought I was just another pretty girl who couldn’t sing. He had a really funky attitude the first time I met him and I threw it back at him. I had to prove a point. He presented me with “I Know You Love Me,” and I went in the studio and knocked it out of the park. We recorded it the first night.

That’s all we did after that; we sat around and recorded day and night. Tony had a way with words and melodies and beats. Garfield Baker and Byron Smith of Freestyle wrote pretty much all my lyrics. They would see me and Tony going through situations and pretty much write about my life, so most of the things that you hear about is all real.

We would all sit and write together, and come up with beats. If Tony came up with a beat and it didn’t make me dance or give me goosebumps, I’d be like, “You need to try something else.” He would listen. A lot of times we butted heads over things, but I would sing it the way he wanted. A lot of the ad libs that you hear in the background, Tony came up with. He just knows what people want to hear.

Because Tony and I were in a relationship, I loved being with him and being at the studio with him day and night. Any time he didn’t want me at the studio, it was because he’d probably got some other chick up in there. Let me just blast that. You ever notice that no other female singer came out hot from Tony from that camp during that whole time? That's because Trinere was blocking it all! “Who is this girl? OK, she’ll be out of here. You’re going to focus only on me, baby.”

Pretty Tony

If Trinere was pissed off, she would pretend she couldn’t hit certain notes. One night she came in and we were doing ad libs on “I’ll Be All You Ever Need” and I wasn’t really feeling it. I told her to go home and waited until 4:30 in the morning until she was good and asleep, then I called her up and told her she needed to come to the studio immediately and record her part because we were mixing the record tomorrow. She was so pissed. She came over and can you believe she was doing the same thing, acting like she couldn’t hit the note? I kept a Mac-11 under my console. It was the ‘80s, everybody gotta have a machine gun. I was so pissed that I took my gun and threw it and cracked the window of the vocal booth. That's the take we ended up using on "I'll Be All You Ever Need." You should hear how great she sounds.

Lewis Martinée
Miami-based producer who created and produced Exposé

Lewis Martinée

In 1984 I was living in Miami. I was writing a bunch of songs but everybody liked “Point of No Return.” I said, “I’m going to put three girls together and call them X-Posed and release this song.” The demo was done by my girlfriend at the time, Alejandra, then I found Sandee and added my partner’s fiancé at the time, Laurie, who was a choreographer. They became Exposé. I went to this place Casanova’s and the DJ played “Point of No Return” and everybody screamed and ran to the dancefloor, so I figured I had something. Then the local radio started playing it and it took off even faster.

I did all the hiring of the band and putting the show order together, and then I would practice with them in the studio. Then I would go out with them on the road for the first week to see if there were any changes that needed to be made and then go back to being in the studio.

Pretty Tony

Harry Stone and the people at Sunnyview Records wanted me to sign my artists to them and I told them no. They sent my friend Amos Larkins II into the studio to make them a Debbie Deb and he came out with Connie “Funky Little Beat.” It wasn’t my sound, but it was the spark. After that, Lewis Martinée came out with a bunch of stuff, Stevie B, Erotic Exotic, Secret Society, Nice & Wild – there had to be ten of them on the radio all at one time. I went in the studio for a year and came out and there was ten records like that on the radio. Everybody was all signed to majors.

Sal Abbatiello

Remember I told you about my father’s club? In the middle of all this working with Nayobe and everything, the biggest promoter in New York, Ralph Mercado – he had all the big salsa groups, Tito Puente, La India, Marc Anthony – gets a deal at the Palladium in Manhattan and leaves my father’s club in the Bronx. It goes from a thousand people to zero. I approached my father, like “Yo, I told you a few months ago about this new movement called Latin hip hop!” Now he’s desperate.

So what do I do? I go get Little Louie Vega to DJ, just like I found Grandmaster Flash. I bring in Andy Panda, who I just met. He’s 19 years old and he lives in Jersey and I’m going to make him the manager of the club within weeks! My talent was finding people with talent. Anyway, now everyone’s ridiculing me: a 19-year-old club manager and this new Puerto Rican DJ.

Nayobe - Please Don't Go

Now we’re going into 1985. As we’re getting the club ready to start, we put “Please Don’t Go” out on the street and all of a sudden it blows up. There’s such a big Latin community of second and third generation Puerto Ricans, and now this is their own shit! They got their own sound.

Louie Vega

In the early ’80s, we used to play the YMCAs and throw parties and jams. We used to get over a thousand people in the Bronx coming to these places. We were playing the music that we heard at The Funhouse, The Garage – everything all mixed together. By 1984, I did a party on my own up in the Bronx. The hot record at the time was “Please Don’t Go” by Nayobe. I hired Nayobe for a show and management came with her. They were like, “Wow, look at Louie. He’s got all these people following him.” So Sal said, “We’d love for you to play at this place called The Devil’s Nest. It’s on Webster Avenue in the Bronx.” A year later, in August ‘85, I started DJing at the Devil’s Nest.

Aldo Marin

The Funhouse was more Brooklyn, Staten Island, but people came from everywhere since it was Downtown. With the Devil’s Nest, you had the Bronx hardcore guys going there, the rapper guys.

George Lamond
A teen regular at Devil’s Nest, he hit it big with “Bad of the Heart” and “Without You”

George Lamond

The Devil’s Nest looked like a dark pool hall with these ugly aluminum foil curtains. I used to think they were the brightest, most pulsating things I’ve ever seen, but I look at pictures now and it was just foil paper. It was dark, dingy, moist and it smelled like gum. It was just a bunch of two-by-four plywood all over the place, painted in black and red. They had the biggest speakers I’ve ever seen, propped all over the place. It was underground, there was no windows; it was so dark in there we wouldn’t come out until Louie would play the last, last record and then we’d go to the diner to get some food.

Sal Abbatiello

Devil’s Nest was huge. It was almost 10,000 square feet and held like 1,200 people. It was a perfectly square club. We had a huge nice stage and we had the DJ booth all the way up; we had to climb up a pretty long ladder to get in there. Everybody was in high school or just starting college. In the crowd, you got people like La India, George Lamond. Biz Markie did his first show there, and Joeski Love with “Pee Wee’s Dance.”

We started on a Saturday night. We put Louie in and it was jam-packed the minute we opened. Back then, there was no clubs for young Latinos. There was only one club in Manhattan, it was called Pizza A Go-Go and they would just open like one night.

Information Society - Running

Louie Vega

At Devil’s Nest, I was breaking a lot of records. We found this independent record called “Running” by Information Society. The next thing you know, it blew up so big. We went in search for them and had them perform. They couldn’t believe it: these white kids from Minneapolis were like, “We’re going to the Bronx?” That ended up being the first song I ever mixed, right around the end of the Devil’s Nest.

I used to go to the studio and hang out with Andy and the Latin Rascals when they were writing new songs. They introduced me to Arthur Baker, who I used to edit for, and Mickey Garcia from Micmac.

Tony Moran

When I was young, I had gotten stabbed, so I had plenty of time on my hands and couldn’t really walk. My friend Albert Cabrera would come to my house every day and just to get the pain off my mind, we would edit all day long. That was our thing: we didn’t play Skelly, we didn’t play handball or basketball, we just did edits all day. We had two reel-to-reels and we wanted to make the perfect 808 masterpiece.

Latin Rascals on Paco's Supermix, 1984

By the time I was 18, Arthur Baker was listening to my radio show. He called Paco (of Paco’s Supermix of WKTU) at the radio station to get ahold of me, and then Paco called my mother. Arthur said, “This doesn’t sound like street editing. It’s like you learned this from M.I.T. or some place.” I came from the ghetto and I was working at Lord & Taylor for $15 an hour and Albert was on welfare living with his mother. I went in my elevator boy suit to go meet Arthur Baker at his studio, and he said, “I want you guys to work on a song called ‘Swept Away’ by Diana Ross.”

Albert and I stayed up for two days straight and read all the instruction manuals, and then I wound up working on “Rock the Box” for Run DMC, all the Kurtis Blow songs, LL Cool J “I Can’t Live Without My Radio.” We were like the Rastafarians of analog tape, because we had it everywhere and we had all these little butter pens to go and make notations on it.

I was working amongst the best musicians in the world, learning how to produce a record. Bono or Mick Jagger would come in the studio and we were just like the Latin freaks basically. Guys like David Cole from C&C Music Factory used to work with me playing keyboards. Actually, he was hanging around and we did Cover Girls’ “Show Me” in between doing edits.

The Cover Girls - Show Me

Sal Abbatiello

Andy and the Latin Rascals wrote “Show Me” for Exposé but they turned it down. I was so pissed I said, "You know what? Let's start our own girl group." We started auditions at the club and we put Cover Girls together: one member, Caroline Jackson, was Andy’s girlfriend’s cousin, another was a friend of mine, Lisa Martinelli, and another, Sunshine Wright, got recommended.

Andy Panda

I always kind of had this thing about the Supremes and Motown. Exposé was doing the girl group thing down in Miami, but no one was really doing it in New York (except this group called Leather & Lace). We came up with the name Cover Girls. The Devil’s Nest was opening in August and I wanted them to debut but I needed money to buy them outfits. Caroline’s boyfriend was a drug dealer and I asked him to lend me the money. They did their first show and it was amazing, but Lisa’s boyfriend was all jealous and acting like a maniac. We were like, “This boyfriend is going to be a pain in the ass,” so we had to let her go. First casualty of the Cover Girls!

Sal Abbatiello

I go to City Island one day and see this girl Angel who I had met in a club about five months before buying seafood. It was just luck. I go, "You said you was a singer? I’m having auditions for a new group.” She showed up last to the audition but the minute she sang Andy and I looked at each other and said, “That's the voice we want.” We put Angel in the group and we made a Cover Girls album, which made us the first independent label in the history of pop music to chart five Billboard Hot 100 hits off the same record.

Nayobe - Second Chance for Love

Andy Panda

For me, it’s the beat that makes a track freestyle: the gated reverb and a big kick drum that’s really nervous. The outboard gear we would use to mix was really important. Every studio we worked in had to have Pultec EQs to give everything a warm sound. In the beginning, the Yamaha DX-7 was a must-have keyboard. Samplers were important so we could mess around with different drums. You always had to have an 808, but we would blend it in with other kick drum sounds.

To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a heavier kick drum than Tony and I used on Nayobe’s “Second Chance for Love.” The minor chord progressions are probably the single thing that identifies freestyle more than anything else. If you listen to a lot of the Motown stuff, they also use those. What was super important for me was live percussion – congas, timbales, bangoros – and if I heard a cool Latin piano riff that really did it for me. I had grown up listening to salsa and if you listen to “Please Don’t Go,” it’s a really percussion-laden track.

Nocera - Summertime, Summertime

Louie Vega

All these independent labels started coming about around that time. For us, the heroes were Sleeping Bag Records because they had Mantronik, who could do a hip hop record or a huge freestyle record like “Summertime Summertime” or Joyce Sims. Between that and the whole Arthur Baker sound and the early ’80s New Wave sound, those were the influences for all of us to make this new music. Then we had these young Latin girls and guys singing the leads, writing love songs that had a little more of a pop sensibility to them. It started getting on radio and then it just blew up.

Arthur Baker

A lot of the freestyle sound came down to Latin singers trying to sound British, especially the guys; they wanted to be Depeche Mode. And then there was Information Society – they were Anglo, but they tried to sound Latin.

Judy Torres
The voice behind heartfelt dance ballads such as “No Reason to Cry” and “Love Story”

Andy Panda

Young people are touched by heartache. I can't think of a freestyle song that isn't about love. What else are we going to write about? "Please Don't Go" was inspired by a West Side Story kind of deal, as was "Maria" by TKA.

Judy Torres

Freestyle celebrates love: being out of love, being in love, questioning love. That was the beauty of freestyle. It was created, just like hip hop, in the streets.

Kayel

We didn’t necessarily come into this music wanting to be a freestyle group. We wanted to be an all Puerto Rican rap group. (There was none at the time, and there didn’t come to be one until Fat Joe did Terror Squad.) But Tommy Boy didn’t need another rap group. Joey Gardner (from Tommy Boy) took our songs and sped them up to 125 BPM and they became these Harlequin romance novels done over dance tracks, and that’s what worked.

Sa-Fire - Boy, I've Been Told

Aldo Marin

My girlfriend used to read these romance novels, Joan Collins and stuff, and in one of them the girl was named Sapphire. That’s how the Sa-Fire name was born. Sa-Fire, whose real name was Wilma Cosmé, was introduced to me by Albert Cabrera, who I used to do a lot of editing with. We listened to her voice and it was completely different than everybody else’s.

All the singers of Cutting Records were different characters. Sa-Fire was strong empowerment-type of girl, Giggles was dancing away a storm and more into lovey-dovey type things. Corina was a more dominant persona; Fascination was an incredible dancer and performer. She was on Vinylmania at first, produced by Todd Terry.

The first time Todd Terry saw a sampler was when he came by while I was doing Nitro Deluxe “Let’s Get Brutal,” the song that came out right before Giggles “Love Letter.” Todd used to come by in different cars he had. He would open the trunk and be like, “I’ve got records. What song you want? Pick one.” His trunk was full of half-inch masters he had just done, like reel-to-reel tapes. He did Giggles with us in 1987 and the first Coro album. I’m not sure but Giggles might be the first time Todd ever played samples up and down a keyboard; I remember we were at Power Play and he played the “Love Letter” vocal with the E-mu Emulator. It was something so new and fresh at that time.

George Lamond

Freestyle was a lifestyle. It was almost like a Depeche Mode type of image. A real ’80s look with the collars up and the long trenchcoats with the long hair and the ponytail in the back, the motorcycle boots and the ripped jeans. It was almost like an indie rock look, but done by Latin guys. A lot of us used to wear grey or navy blue peacoats with brooches. It was like the Minneapolis look, with the pins with the chain hanging from them, and a silk paisley shirt buttoned all the way to the top. It was the ugliest thing ever, but if you were rocking that look, you knew exactly where you belonged.

Depeche Mode - Stripped

Kayel

The Temptations and The Supremes and the Jackson Five and the groups of Motown were a big influence; and me being a Latin from New York City, the salsa bands also, because those were the groups that our parents were listening to.

We would also try to find something Euro looking. I used to hang out outside Danceteria because I couldn’t get in, and the music that I would hear outside would be the Euro sound, like Eurasia or “Stripped” by Depeche Mode. I would then go back to my local record store and say, “Hey, there’s a song called ‘Stripped.’ Who did that?” I’d find out they were the same guys that sang “People Are People.” I’d seen their video on TV, and I was like, “Oh, cool. I need a black jean jacket. I need Doc Martens.”

As kids, we didn’t have a lot of money. Somehow I would get the loudest blazer that my dad had and take his smallest turtleneck and put it on with a pair of jeans and the only shoes I had in my closet. At the time, all the girls wanted to be Madonna. All the girls had the lace look.

Lisa Lisa

I had lace pants, a lace top, a long-tailed guy’s suit and a lace headband around my head – all black and white. I couldn’t afford to go to the hairdresser, so I used to cut my own hair. My look with the long hair over one eye happened because I used to shave the side of my head, and I shaved one side too short, so I used the hair to cover it. That became a style.

Evelyn Escalera
A member of Sal Abbatiello’s Cover Girls

Evelyn Escalera

When I first joined the Cover Girls I had to have big teased hair, nails done, immaculate makeup – you had to look like a “cover girl,” even going to the airport and I wasn’t used to that!

Kayel

Everyone was doing the wop back then, and the Cabbage Patch and the Roger Rabbit. Once the hip hop stopped and the dance music would kick in, there was a group of guys called the Dragons. They would come out and do like awful ballet pantomime; they would try to do lyrical dancing, which was almost comedic because they were all 220-pound guys who probably worked out all week. They would take off their shirts so that they were in tank tops, and to impress the girls they’d be on the dance floor doing the oddest acrobatics ever. I guess from there came some of the early freestyle dance steps where it was a cross between breakdancing’s uprock movements mixed with these lyrical hand gestures.

Adam Torres
A breakdancer from NYC who now promotes big freestyle events and manages Latin artists.

Adam Torres

My recollection of the style at the time was a mix between almost like post-punk and hip-hop. There were these people called webo dancers, named after huevo (Spanish for “egg”). They were all dressed in black and very trendy, very Downtown, almost Keith Haring-era people; like maybe people leftover from Larry Levan’s Garage. Then they were combined with other people that were more upscale urban wear, like hip hop sneakers and jeans.

Andy Panda

Webo dancing was happening in Bond’s, The Funhouse, Gotham’s West, it was a bit before freestyle. It was done to “garage music,” like what Larry Levan played, and all that electro hip hop stuff on Streetwise: Nairobi’s “Funky Soul Makossa,” New Order’s “Confusion.” The webo scene was largely Puerto Rican. Madonna totally ripped off that whole vibe, with the name belts, karate shoes, the baggy pants, the cut-off shirts. While they were dancing they’d be saying “Dale webo, dale webo,” like a chant.

Heartthrob was my first paid show. I remember being so tired. Showtime was at 2 AM. I was young and I was used to going to bed at 10.

Judy Torres

Sal Abbatiello

By the time 1986 rolled around, Devil’s Nest was off the hook. Now what happens? They change the drinking law to age 21 from 18. These kids have been drinking for years. Now all of a sudden they can’t drink. We lost the whole crowd. Heartthrob opens up and they’re gonna do an “18 to party” juice bar. They call for Louie. That club holds 4,000 people, my club holds 1,000 and all my patrons want liquor. I became a promoter after that and I never opened another club.

Louie Vega

I played at the Devil’s Nest in ‘85 for nine months. Hearthrob was ‘86 and ‘87, a year and ten months.

Kayel

Heartthrob had a humongous, large clown face smiling down at you from the DJ booth, which was leftover from the [club it was before], The Funhouse.

Judy Torres - No Reason To Cry

Judy Torres

Heartthrob was my first paid show. I remember being so tired – it was the first time I learned that showtime was at 2 AM. I was young and I was used to going to bed at 10. Before I went on, my manager took me in the bathroom and said, “Put your hand out.” He counted the money on my hand and it was the most money I had ever seen in my life.

Palladium and 1018 were also huge. 1018 was on 10th Avenue and 18th Street; it used to be The Roxy. When we had huge freestyle shows that was the place to be. That was where Louie Vega broke a couple of my songs. It was such an incredible time. It was like Latin Beatlemania. I remember the Puerto Rican Day parade. I was on the Hot 103 float with Lisa Lisa and we needed police escorts by the end of it because the crowd was in a frenzy.

Tony Moran

We were at that time of the ‘80s when Latino culture had not yet experienced true leaders, or someone they could identify with. It was crazy – we were playing music to thousands of people that we had made in our mother’s house.

The Latin Rascals - Arabian Knights

Judy Torres

Back then everything was recorded to reel-to-reel. While we were recording “No Reason to Cry” in Alvin Molina’s bedroom, if anyone flushed the toilet we had to start over again because there was no way to wipe that sound out.

Tony Moran

Latin Rascals became so big all of a sudden. Managers were like, “Dude, you’re selling out places and girls are going crazy! You need to sing on a song!” and I’m like: “I don’t sing, man” and it’s like, “Well, you better fucking sing!” At the time we were working on a project that was a spoof of classical standards called Macho Mozart and we wrote a song called “Arabian Knights.” Then we met the amazingly talented Andy Panda and he was like, “I could write a song over that.”

As it turns out, Timbuktu didn’t have shores, but what do I know about geography?

Andy Panda

Andy Panda

Tony tells me, “I need you to come to the studio and help me work on ‘Arabian Nights’ first thing in the morning.” So I get there and everything is all set up and he’s like, “Okay, you got the lyrics?” I’m like, “No, I thought we were just going to work on it.” And he said, “We gotta have the vocals done or Charles is going to be pissed.” Well, I had just had my first cup of coffee, and I had to sit on the throne. I wrote that song while I was taking care of my morning business. “I’ve been to France and England / The shores of Timbuktu.” As it turns out, Timbuktu didn’t have shores, but what do I know about geography?

Tony Moran

The background singers taught me that if I could sing a note with confidence, then it would be believable. And if it’s believable then I caught you, like in a trap. So I started singing on these records and I couldn’t believe what was happening – you know, like, singing in front of 100,000 people at the World’s Fair. There was no time to be scared.

Trinere

Everything was happening so fast; we put out the songs so fast and they all had the same playing power. There was only so much money, because everything was independent, so we didn’t make any videos. Tony was in talks with major record labels, Atlantic Records and Sony and whatever, but it never panned out.

Debbie Deb - I'm Searchin' (Mixx-It)

Pretty Tony

In 1986, I went away “on vacation,” so to speak. None of my artists wanted to sing for anybody but me. After I left, the label had all kinds of producers and engineers. Since the real Debbie Deb didn’t want to sing anymore, they got another girl to be called Debbie Deb and they made “I’m Searching.” The guys at the label knew if they put my name on the label, the radio station would play it, so that’s what they did.

Trinere

When Tony went into jail, I had major hits at the time. I had to keep things rolling and continue to perform for the next couple years. A lot of music – Latin hip hop – was coming out of New York but I felt like I had to defend and protect the stuff Tony and I had created that was coming out of Miami. I wouldn’t jump on anybody else’s bandwagon and say, “OK, now you can produce me.” I didn’t jump ship that quick.

George Lamond

In the late ’80s we were touring the country. They booked arenas from west to east. We actually had six tour buses. The people you saw at freestyle shows on the East Coast were majority, I would say 80%, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and Cubans, and then some Italians. Then you would go to the West Coast and you saw like Samoans and Filipinos and a lot of Asians, but thug motherfuckers. There were a lot of second-generation Mexicans that were really educated and spoke like white people. The styles were totally louder than us, the hair was bigger, the makeup was a lot louder. There was a lot of gang stuff that we didn’t have. We had to be very, very careful of what we wore. They would say, “Whatever you guys do, don’t wear no blue today.”

Lewis Martinée

Exposé ended up being much bigger in California than Miami. I know that in California they could sell out an arena tour three nights in a row, whereas in Miami we can barely sell a one-off night in a similar-size arena.

Sal Abbatiello

All the major labels thought freestyle was like the next hip hop, so they started signing all these groups: Sa-Fire, Cover Girls, Coro, Exposé, Stevie B, Sweet Sensation, except what happened was they didn’t know what to do with them. They were trying to change their sound to pop.

It’s the only area of music where half of the artists were off-note, off-key and no one gave a fuck because the records were selling everywhere.

Oscar G

Kayel

The most popular producers by the late ‘80s were Tony Moran, Carlos Berrios, and Frankie Cutlass. I had gotten together with Frankie Cutlass, and we were trying to see how we could make it feel a little different. We started experimenting with the tambourine, a lot of breakbeats, sampling the Apache and we came up with “Give Your Love to Me,” which introduced a harder sound. Frankie then worked with Carlos Berrios on Lisette Melendez “Together Forever” and “Temptation” for Corina. At the time, New York was going back to loving hip hop again. Big Daddy Kane was coming out and the rap movement was becoming a lot harder. As hip hop changed, we wanted to change.

A lot of these copycat guys couldn’t copy the sound. If you wanted the sound of Carlos Berrios or Frankie Cutlass, you had to pay them; but then these guys might be too busy – Tony Moran was working with George Michael and Madonna by that time. The scene became so over-saturated with a bad stuff that it almost drowned out the good records that were happening. Imagine if all the greatest hits of Motown were duplicated and sung by people who weren’t as good as The Supremes or The Temptations, In ‘89, there might have been one or two bad records, but by 1990 there were 30 bad ones.

Oscar G

When it comes to the decline of it, there was an over-saturation of vocalists who couldn’t sing. It’s the only area of music where half of the artists were off-note, off-key and no one gave a fuck because the records were selling everywhere. It was a vehicle for young kids from the hood: you take them in the studio, shine them up, put them on tour. Micmac Records was a classic example. We’d be doing three or four shows a day back then, running around. Collect the money, jump in the fucking limo, go to the next gig. It was crazy. It didn’t matter because the records sold. The culture kept moving along with it. It also became a jumping off platform for Latino kids from all over the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens to get into the music business.

Judy Torres

Part of the problem was also the radio stations. Our songs were on Hot 103, the station that broke us, at the time. Our music became so successful that other stations wanted to add it; they began to say things like, “If you perform at our parade, we will play your song.” Then the other station would say, “If you do that parade, we will never play your record again.” We were all so young we didn’t know what to do. Then Hot 103 became Hot 97 and all of a sudden they played strictly hip hop, no freestyle anymore. Others stations in the country copy what New York radio does, so then no one was playing our songs. I was about two weeks away from releasing my second album when that happened and I was crushed.

Adam Torres

Sal Abbatiello carried the torch. There were periods from then to now that were dead for freestyle. He tried to keep it alive but clubs wouldn’t book the artists or shows. And then, just like every other genre, things just have a cycle and it started coming back around and now we have these freestyle arena shows and tours with thousands of people.

Sal Abbatiello

Freestyle died in ‘93 or ‘94 but what happens now is there’s all the young generation who grew up on it, listening to it from their older brothers and sisters and mothers. The Italians and Puerto Ricans. Now they’re going into their 20s and their parents are in their 40s. The hooks are great; they’re simple and easy.

It’s all about love. And the artists are still around and in great shape. I had the insight from hip hop to see the future and then years later, in 2003, to reinvent the music I discovered. Now the same people are divorced or they broke up and they got a new boyfriend and that same song they grew up on, they still got that song to reminisce with.

Additional reporting by Bruce Tantum

Illustrations by Luciano Ayres